As young writers most of us probably recall our teachers encouraging us to “pick one tense and stick with it,” all in the interest of achieving consistency and maintaining the reader’s attention. Fortunately, we also discovered somewhere along the line that rules were made to be broken. This sentiment has been echoed by a number of well-known people, including Pablo Picasso who said “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” and the Dalai Lama who gives this advice: “Know the rules well so you can break them effectively.” Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a coward when it comes to breaking the rules, and when it comes to bucking the tradition of sticking with just one tense, I’m definitely not a maverick.
The same cannot be said of Edmund White, however. I remember reading A Boy’s Own Story and feeling a certain degree of indignation that he would just switch back and forth between tenses. It all seemed to willy nilly to me, until I went back and studied the effect he was producing on the reader. When done the right way, alternating tenses can really enhance the narrative in a variety of ways.
An instant classic upon its publication in 1982, A Boy’s Own Story is the first in the Edmund White trilogy of autobiographical novels that chronicle a half century of American gay life through a young man’s coming of age. Growing up with divorced parents who are emotionally detached, the unidentified narrator reflects on a complicated childhood in the 1950s, where art and literature provide refuge from his feelings of isolation and self-consciousness. While searching out friends and mentors, he becomes aware of a distinct longing to be loved by the men in his life, a process that evokes feelings of shame and a struggle for self-acceptance. To recapture many of the pivotal moments in his young life, White does what many authors do when writing an autobiography: he uses the past tense. Or, at least, he primarily uses the past tense, because every once in a while he changes to the present tense in his narrative. According to the English writer Ben Hoare, this is not a novelty because “[m]any modern novelists shift between the past and present tense to distinguish between the multiple narratives they are presenting.” Edmund White, however, takes an unusual approach to his use of tenses in the writing of his autobiography. Although he uses the present tense sparingly, every once in a while White abruptly abandons the past tense and resorts to the present to revive memorable events and characters.
As sparse as White’s use of the present tense may be in A Boy’s Own Story, the reader doesn’t get the slightest inkling of this when the book opens. On the very first page, the very first paragraph starts with this description in the here and now: “We are going for a midnight boat ride. It’s a cold, clear summer night and four of us – the two boys, my dad and I – are descending the stairs that zigzag down the hill from the house to the dock.” With these words, specifically the use of verbs in the present tense, the author draws in the reader and makes her part of the scene. This sense of the present is maintained throughout the rest of the paragraph as well, setting the reader up for the remainder of the narrative to be told in the same tense. The next paragraph, however, shows a shift in time when White writes: “I was bundled up, a sweater and a Windbreaker over today’s sunburn. My father stopped to examine the bottom two steps just above the foot path that traveled from cottage to cottage on our side of the lake.” Suddenly, through the use of the preterit, the reader is thrust into the past, seemingly distanced from the intimacy of the present, and this new tense is the one that will prevail for the majority of White’s narration. Perhaps the inclusion of “today’s sunburn” – an adjectival reference to the present, a temporal carry-over from the first paragraph – in a second paragraph dominated by the past tense is the author’s clever way of helping the reader transition between the two tenses.
Although White seems to want to tantalize his readers with a taste of the present in his opening paragraph, once he shifts to the past tense in the second paragraph, this is the tense that defines the remainder of his autobiography. Only on rare occasions does he deviate from the past and resort to narration in the present tense, ostensibly at times when present-tense narration is especially effective in bringing past events and characters to life. A good example of this occurs on page 53 when White goes into depth about his sister. “My sister was a true son,” he writes. “She could ride a horse and swim a mile and was as capable of stained rages as [my father].” Abruptly, however, he switches to the present on the next page and writes: “Right now I’m looking at an ancient photograph of my sister and me. I’m three and she’s seven, both of us bundled up for the winter and posed against an ominously black Christmas wreath.” With this declaration, White breaks the narration in the past and jerks his readers from the days of his childhood to a point several decades later, presumably when he wrote the book. Then, still in the present, he travels back to the 1940s, this time taking the readers along, so they are transplanted to his childhood and can almost imagine themselves seeing him and sister in person.
Something similar happens on page 68 when White describes the family dynamic between his mother, sister and himself. “In every way we had more fun than other people and were superior to them,” he writes, in the past tense, but in the following paragraph he suddenly switches to the present: “My sister and I have been left alone in the hotel room all day. Mother is off on a date after work. We’ve been instructed to take our meals in the dining room downstairs (I’ll be home when I’m home – don’t worry about me). I’m ten, my sister is fourteen.” Once again, the author has seemingly grabbed the reader by the hand and yanked him back to the present, allowing him to more fully experience the moment he has recaptured.
This technique of using the present to transport the audience back in time affords the reader the opportunity to more fully appreciate certain events and places that were important to White; it is especially effective, however, as a means of bringing the people in his past back to life. When conjuring up images of a friend from boarding school, white writes that “Heberto was also full of energy.” But in the very next line on page 132 he shifts to the present: “Look at the vein pulsing in his neck, the aimless trills his fingers are playing, the weird ululations hooting out of his mouth…” By the time the next paragraph starts, White has gone back to the preterit; as fleeting as it was, however, this temporary foray into the present tense has been used to successfully revive one of the author’s childhood friends, bring him back to life, really. As a result, the reader is allowed to see the Heberto character through the author’s eyes and the narration achieves a level of richness that would have been absent had the present tense not been used.
To add to this richness, White heightens this shift in time with a further shift in the point of view, not to mention in the voice. Whereas most of the narration is carried out in the third person point of view, he switches to the second person when he tells the reader to look at the vein pulsing in his neck. In addition, most of his narrative is in the indicative mood, so when he unexpectedly employs the imperative mood when giving the command to look, it is all the more jarring for the reader. Nonetheless, combined the switches in tense and point of view, it is an extremely effective method of bringing this character to life in the mind’s eye.
The reader experiences an especially startling restoration of the past in the character of Mr. Pouchet, one of the young Edmund White’s teachers. Starting the paragraph with the past tense, White recalls on page 143: “Every morning at six he was out on the track running through the mist, stopwatch in hand, puffs of vapor issuing from his mouth, but surely he was running down. I had no idea how old he was (twenty-something), but doubtless he was declining physically.” But then in the very next line, in mid-paragraph, he shifts to the present tense to conjure Pouchet out of the mist that shrouded the track: “Here he comes, blood drained from his dark cheeks, lips purple and open to reveal wet, white teeth, legs lean and slightly bowed, the calves compact, not bulging, his whole body so intelligent that despite its hairiness nothing about it suggests an animal.” This description, in the present, allows the reader to vividly visualize a character from the author’s past; consequently, it’s easy to see how using anything but the present tense would have rendered a much less effective description in this instance.
In his autobiography Edmund White mostly uses the preterit tense to recreate scenes and events from his childhood. He occasionally switches tenses, however, abruptly reverting to the present tense to make events and characters more alive and believable. Consequently, these infrequent shifts between the past and present tenses add richness and interest to the narrative and they show us that rules are made to be broken.